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In everyday language to deviate means to stray from an accepted path. Many sociological definitions of deviance simply elaborate upon this idea. Thus deviance consists of those areas which do not follow the norms and expectations of a particular social group. Deviance may be positively sanctioned (rewarded), negatively sanctioned (punished), or simply accepted without reward or punishment. In terms of the above definition of deviance, the soldier on the battlefield who risks his life above and beyond the normal call of duty may be termed deviant, as the physicist who breaks the rules of his discipline and develops a new theory. Their deviance may be positively sanctioned; the soldier might be rewarded with a medal, the physicist with a Noble prize. In one sense, though, neither is deviant since both conform to the values of society, the soldier to the value of courage; the physicist to the value of academic progress.
By comparison, a murderer deviates not only from society's norms and expectations but also from its values, in particular the value placed on human life. His deviance generally results in widespread disapproval and punishment. A third form of deviance consists of acts which depart from the norms and expectations of a particular society but are generally tolerated and accepted. The little old lady with a house full of cats or the old gentleman with an obsession for collecting clocks would fall into this category. Usually their eccentricities are neither rewarded nor punished by others. They are simply defined as a 'bit odd' but harmless, and therefore tolerated. Deviance is relative. This means that there is no absolute way of defining a deviant act. Deviance can only be defined in relation to a particular standard, but no standards are fixed or absolute. As such deviance varies from time to time and place to place. In a particular society an act which is considered deviant today may be defined as normal in the future. An act defined as deviant in one society may be seen as perfectly normal in another. Put another way, deviance is culturally determined and cultures change over time and vary from society to society. The following examples will serve to illustrate the above points. Sometimes ago in Western society it had been considered deviant for women to smoke, use make-up and consume alcoholic drinks in public. Today this is no longer the case. In the same way, definitions of crime change over time. Homosexuality was formerly a criminal offence in Britain. Since 1969, however, homosexual acts conducted between consenting adults in private are no longer illegal. A comparison of modern Western culture with the traditional culture of the Teton Sioux Indians of the USA illustrates how deviance varies from society to society. As part of their religions rituals during the annual Sun Dance Ceremony Sioux Warriors mutilated their bodies, leather thongs were inserted through strips of flesh on the chest and attached to a central pole, and warriors had to break free by tearing their flesh and in return they were granted favors by the supernatural powers. Similar actions by members of Western society may well be viewed as masochism or madness. In the same way behaviour accepted as normal in Western society may be defined as deviant within primitive society. In the West the private ownership of property is an established norm; members of society strive to accumulate wealth and substantial property holding brings power and prestige. Such behaviour would have incurred strong disapproval amongst the Sioux and those who acted in terms of the above norms would be regarded as deviant. Generosity was a major value of Sioux culture and the distributed rather than accumulation of wealth was the route to power and prestige. Chiefs were expected to distribute gifts of horses, beadwork and weapons to their followers. The norms of Sioux culture prevented the accumulation of Wealth. The Sioux had no conception of the individual ownership of land; the produce of the hunt was automatically shared by all members of the group. Emile Durkheim developed his view on deviance in his discussion of crime in The Rules of Sociological Method. He argues that crime is an inevitable and normal aspect of social life; it is an integral part of all healthy societies. It is inevitable because not every member of society can be equally committed to the 'collective sentiments, the shared values and beliefs of society. Since individuals are exposed to different influences and circumstances, it is impossible for all to be alike. Therefore, not everybody shares the same restraints about breaking the law.
Crime is not only inevitable, it can also be functional. Durkheim argues that it only becomes dysfunctional when its rate is unusually high. He argues that all social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for change to occur, Yesterday's deviance must become today's normality. Since a certain amount of change is healthy for society, so it can progress rather than stagnate. So for change to occur, the collective sentiments must not be too strong, or too hostile. Infact, they must have only moderate energy' because if they were to strong they would crush all originality both of the criminal and of the genius. Thus the collective sentiments must not be sufficiently powerful to block the expression of people like Jesus, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. Durkheim regarded some crime as and anticipation of the morality of the future. Thus heretics who were denounced by both the state and the established church may represent the collective sentiments of the future. In the same way terrorists of freedom fighters may represent a future established order .If crime is inevitable, what is the function of punishment. Durkheim argues that its function is not to remove crime in society. Rather it is to maintain the collective sentiments at their necessary level of strength. In Durkheim's words, punishment 'serves to heal the wounds done to the collective sentiments'. Without punishment the collective sentiments would lose their force to control behaviour and the crime rate would reach the point where it becomes dysfunctional. Thus in Durkheim's view, a healthy society requires both crime and punishment, both are inevitable, both are functional.
Following Durkheim, Merton argues that deviance results not from pathological personalities but from the culture and structure of society itself. He begins from the standard functionalist position of value consensus, that is, all members of society share the same values. However, since members of society are placed in different positions in the social structure, for example, they differ in terms of class position; they do not have the same opportunity of realizing the shared value. This situation can generate deviance. In Merton's words: 'The social and cultural structure generates pressure for socially deviant behaviour upon people variously located in that structure.
Using USA as an example, Merton outlines his theory as follows. Members of American Society share the major values of American culture. In particular they share the goal of success for which they all strive and which is largely measured in terms of wealth and material possessions. The 'American Dream' states that all members of society have an equal opportunity of achieving success, of owning a Cadillac, a Beverley Hills mansion and a substantial bank balance. In all societies there are institutionalized means of reaching culturally defined goals. In America the accepted ways of achieving success are through educational qualifications, talent, hard work, drive, determination and ambition. In a balanced society an equal emphasis is placed upon both cultural goals and institutionalized means, and members are satisfied with both. But in America great importance is attached to success and relatively less importance is given to the accepted ways of achieving success. As such, American society is unstable, unbalanced. There is a tendency to reject the 'rules of the game' and to strive for success by all available means. The situation becomes like a game of cards in which winning becomes so important that the rules are abandoned by some of the players. When rules cease to operate a situation of normlessness or 'anomie' results. In this situation of anything norms no longer direct behavior and deviance is encouraged. However, individuals will respond to a situation of anomie in different ways. In particular, their reaction will be shaped by their position in the social structure. Merton outlines five possible ways in which members of American society can respond to success goals. The first and most common response is conformity. Members of society conform both to success goals and the normative means of reaching them. A second response is 'innovation'. This response rejects normative means of achieving success and turns to deviant means, crime in particular. Merton argues that members of the lower social strata are most likely to select this route to success.
Merton uses the term 'ritualism' to describe the third possible response. Those who select this alternative are deviant because they have largely abandoned the commonly held success goals. The pressure to adopt this alternative is greatest on members of the lower middle class. Their occupations provide less opportunity for success than those of other members of the middle class. However, compared o members of the working class, they have been strongly socialized to conform to social norms. This prevents them from turning to crime. Unable to innovate and with jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement, their only solution is to scale down or abandon their success goals. Merton terms the fourth and least common response, 'retreatism'. It applies to psychotics, artists, pariahs, drug addicts. They have strongly internalized both the cultural goals and the institutionalized means but is unable to achieve success. They resolve the conflict of their situation by abandoning both the goals and the means of reaching them. They are unable to cope with challenges and drop out of society defeated and resigned to their failure. They are deviant in two ways: they have rejected both the cultural goals and the institutionalized means. Merton does not relate retreatism to social class position. Rebellion forms the fifth and final response. It is a rejection of both the success goals and the institutionalized means and their replacement by different goals and means. Those who adopt this alternative want to create a new society. Thus urban guerillas in Western European capitalist societies adopt deviant means- terrorism- to reach deviant goals such as a communist society. Merton argues that it is typically members of a rising class rather than the most depressed strata who organize the resentful and rebellious into a revolutionary group.
To summarize, Merton claims that his analysis shows how the culture and structure of society generates deviance.